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How to Catch and Keep a Journalist in Content Marketing

A version of this article was originally published in CCO magazine in April. 

It wasn’t long ago that most of us believed journalists would be forever at odds with content marketing. Their firm desire to maintain a complete separation between editorial work and publishing work seemed sure to doom any joint project. But then many things changed. Brands became more adept at self-reflective storytelling. Newspaper profit margins went into freefall, and people’s trust in traditional media took a similar dive. Now, barriers have crumbled. Journalists are taking a seat in-house at brands and that’s great news for everyone involved.

Brands and journalists: A mutually beneficial relationship

From the writers’ point of view, working with brands gives them a way to take on new challenges, practice their craft, and add both stability and growth potential to their careers – opportunities that can be hard to come by in traditional media jobs. In the past 15 years, more journalists have lost their jobs than coal miners.

A generation of bright and talented writers may still aspire to get their work picked up by The New Yorker, but they are also more willing to lend their storytelling skills to brands.

A generation of talented journalists may aspire to The New Yorker, but they also are more willing to lend their #storytelling skills to brands, says @cgillespie317 via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Brands have much to gain by bringing writing pros aboard their content teams. For starters, many experienced journalists have earned advanced degrees in writing-centric disciplines, which gives them a keen editorial eye for detail and a strong background in fact-checking – useful skills when crafting compelling stories and thoughtful analytical discussions.

And, as anyone familiar with the annealing processes of newswriting can appreciate, they are adept at quickly synthesizing multiple points of view into a single clear message on a crazy deadline.

With a host of mutual advantages and a landscape where these partnerships can thrive, one question remains: How can marketers attract a journalist to their team and empower them to perform well in a brand environment?

I’ve interviewed nearly 100 writers to get their thoughts, and here are a few things I’ve learned from our conversations:

1. Share your brand’s passions and values

Never pitch your brand as boring. Not ever. If you can’t find a hook to interest a journalist in what you have to offer, you can’t expect them to want the challenge of communicating with an audience on your behalf.

“Great writers want to pursue great stories,” says Contently editor-in-chief Jordan Teicher. “Freelance writers are a marginalized group, so they tend to care a lot about business ethics, morals, community service, and legitimate corporate missions.”

Every business, no matter how seemingly plain, has a deeper story to tell – often around the change they created in the lives of their customers. Sharing these kinds of stories in your conversation with writing candidates lets them know they’ll have more to work with than just simple feature comparisons. When interviewing a potential journalist hire, paint a similar picture of your brand’s unique content mission to help them envision the storytelling possibilities.

In interviewing #writing candidates, paint a picture of your brand’s unique #content mission, says @cgillespie317 via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

2. Show them the money

Journalists who have spent their careers in professional media are chronically overeducated and underpaid. Many have earned multiple advanced degrees; yet, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, they earn an average of one-third less than high school teachers.

And that’s if they’re able to find steady work. Not only have staff jobs continued to dry up, the highly competitive market for cheap freelance writing talent has forced even the most skilled journalists to reduce their asking rates.

The opportunity to advance their careers while earning a steady paycheck (either salaried or as a contracted contributor) without sacrificing the creative stimulation their work provides to them can hold a lot of appeal – which makes it well worth mentioning in your job description and candidate interviews.

3. Be transparent about your team structure and process

A content marketing team needs to do many things well, one of which just happens to be a strength of journalists – working story ideas through an editorial process.

Compared to traditional marketers who transition to content marketing roles, journalists likely have experience working in newsroom-like settings and understand all the steps to turn ideas into publication-ready content. They know how to gather input from multiple sourcesmanage review and approval processes; and edit, proof, and fact-check their copy.

However, to perform well in content marketing, journalists want to know that your brand is committed to producing high-quality content and will provide the managerial support and process infrastructure to deliver it consistently.

To earn their trust in this respect, organize your team’s content creation process under a standardized editorial model, such as the double-diamond process my team follows.

Image Source

This process draws from design thinking, but its principles should be familiar to any professional who has worked in a hierarchical, newsroom-like setting. It codifies the idea that there are many ways to create a piece of content. But to maintain high quality while working against deadlines, appoint one person (most often the journalist) to serve as the “writing CEO.” This person draws insights from all the required inputs, shepherds story ideas through the workflow, and ensures that all output speaks from a singular brand voice.

Applying this technique not only reduces friction throughout the creative process, it also helps avoid those situations where too many editors in the kitchen work against each other and dilute the value of the message and its potential impact.

4. Clear their path to research data and expert insights

Even Pulitzer Prize-winning writers are only as good as the sources they can tap for accurate, insightful information. For content marketers, interesting story sources often are inside your organization – from the people who build your products to your sales and customer support staff who are the keepers of stories from satisfied customers. Their stories will go untold and your staff writers unfulfilled if you can’t ensure that your writing team will have reliable, firsthand access to those subject-matter experts.

For content marketers, interesting story sources often are inside your organization, says @cgillespie317 via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Writers want to know what resources will be available to use and how prospective managers will enable them to access them. Whether the intention is to gather insights through direct conversations, discover them through original research, or mine them from available content data, you need to show they can get what they need to create your brand’s stories.

Often, this starts by securing leadership-level buy-in on your content marketing initiatives, so your content creators are not just pressuring other team members to participate in content creation. The blackbelt-level approach is to demonstrate how your team’s content can help those other departments on their goals. For instance, featuring your vice president of sales in an interview and sharing it on social media can raise their industry profile and strengthen their ability to connect with customers.

You can’t always ensure that writers can execute on every great content idea they have. But you can promise a smooth process to facilitate conversations and stakeholder support to do their jobs well. Tout how your executives, stakeholders, and partners have participated in past content efforts and initiatives and share examples of the great work that resulted.

5. Ease their concerns with a soft onboarding ramp

Crafting purposeful business stories may not come naturally to every skilled writer (journalists included) for a variety of reasons. For example, they may have to ramp up their knowledge of basic marketing principles, gain a deeper understanding of the nuances of your industry, or go through a few revision rounds before they nail your brand voice and messaging perfectly.

For all these reasons and more, it’s helpful to onboard new writing talent by providing them with a “soft ramp” – a way to gradually expose them to the nature of your business, the needs of your customers, and the communication challenges and opportunities there will be. This can be as simple as sharing marked-up drafts they can compare to the published versions or as detailed as sharing a documented style guide that outlines all the characteristics required for their work to be approved as publication-ready.

Other starter tasks to help ramp up their brand proficiency include:

  • Writing a roundup of relevant news for use in your company newsletters
  • Interviewing customers and other subject-matter experts to get a well-rounded view of the brand’s key talking points and their most pressing concerns
  • Repurposing long-form content pieces (like white papers) so the content can be shared in other formats or on additional channels (like social media or blog posts)
  • Doing first-line edits on content written by other team members

In addition, if you look for people who have a particular writing strength or specialized experience within your industry, make it clear in your job description and initial conversations with promising candidates.

“Brands that want to attract talent from the journalism world need to make it clear that they’re interested in reporters as candidates for marketing positions,” says Kendall Walters, who possesses a master’s degree in journalism and is a content marketing manager at the video marketing startup Vidyard.

Brands that want to attract journalists need to make it clear that they’re interested in reporters as candidates for #marketing positions, says @KendallWalters via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

“This can be as simple as including ‘journalism’ alongside the usual ‘English’ or ‘business’ degrees in the education section of a job posting or loosening requirements for direct experience in the industry. It can also be as proactive as going outbound to search for and reach out to writers with journalism experience on platforms like LinkedIn,” she says.

To make a convincing case for journalists and other expert writers to join your content team, include points like these in the job description and candidate interviews:

  • We have an authentic mission and a commitment to delivering on it through all our content initiatives.
  • We highly value the work of our writers and offer competitive compensation.
  • We have a strong content creation process.
  • We can provide direct access to subject-matter experts and other high-value information sources.
  • We have an established program to help you acclimate to the content needs of our industry.

Turn a journalist’s skill into your brand’s most valuable asset

Journalists may not be natural-born marketers, but by providing a compelling opportunity to apply their storytelling skills and a supportive environment where their talents can flourish, your content team stands to gain some compelling, competitive benefits from their talents. Their involvement may be just what your brand needs to spice up your program and turn every new asset into a memorable showcase of uniquely compelling insights, ideas, and audience value.

The original version of this article appeared in Chief Content Officer magazine. To subscribe to the digital publication for content marketing leaders, click here.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute